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Dear friends,

Years ago, my friend, Brian, was mediating a dispute. It was complicated, involving groups who had been affected by distress in their city. One side blamed the other, and the other side blamed the blaming side. There was conflict about what the conflict was about. There was a meeting to address the escalating threats, and history was present like dynamite. There was fire in the air. 

Because of anger and humiliation, the groups were itching for a particular kind of showdown in the mediation. There was only one imagination about what the culmination to all of this would be: further conflict. Brian walked into the room, saw what was in the air, and made a decision. 

“Will we start with a song?” he posed. Then he started to sing a well-known song. 

I know people who were in the room. Brian’s singing was a shock. But because he kept singing, people started to hum along. A new — and surprising — experience happened. Everybody in the room now thought Brian was deranged.

Brian, in the role of the mediator, was doing something risky, but important. When there is only one posture imagined between conflicted groups, sometimes we need a surprise to show us what else might be possible. When you have focused all of your hostility on that other group, sometimes a mediator with a lovely singing voice can be a new focus for your hostility. Brian wasn’t making light of the conflict, he was using a tactic of distraction to open up the possibility of unexpected words being said in a room where only expected rehearsals of worn arguments had been imagined. With something new, other new things can arise. 

Krista’s wondrous and far-reaching conversation with Rabbi Ariel Burger this week engages with the questions of who and how groups can be groups of moral courage. In a conversation that spans lamentation, otherness, blessing and contribution of a theological understanding to contemporary political divides, we encounter Rabbi Burger — a scholar, artist and musician — as a wise voice in practice when it comes to the question of how to speak well with each other in tense times. 

Ariel Burger was a student of the late Elie Wiesel, whose wisdom is almost like a third voice in this conversation. We hear Wiesel’s reminders about how to disagree: “Never let anyone be humiliated in your presence,” pointing to a practice wherein past wrongs could be tools of education rather than humiliation. With  great wisdom, Ariel Berger also points to the limits of this practice: Elie Wiesel would never engage with a Holocaust denier, for instance. The practice of how to speak with each other requires a kind of embodiment — a “holy madness” Rabbi Burger calls it — rather than an abstract set of ideas. 

The world is filled with rooms of serious disagreement, we know this. And the wisdom from this conversation is timely, and timeless. We inhabit a world where otherness is used both as a weapon and a barrier: “I want to share with you that I think there are two challenges with otherness - one is we fall into the trap of not listening,” Rabbi Burger says.“We also make a different mistake which is to be overly familiar with the other, and to think that we already know the other.” The hope is that we can transmit a different kind of intelligence and knowing of each other: filled with truth, yes, but not just as a function of the brain, but as a function of the whole person. When we encounter each other, we become oriented towards each other, activated witnesses, able in large or modest ways, to embody “a moral education without moralising.” 

From a conversation on On Being that considers otherness through mysticism and a long view of time, the latest This Movie Changed Me about Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were with writer Sophie Krueger locates the question of self-discovery, conflict, love, compatibility, otherness and endings in the small world between two people. Right at the beginning we learn that the relationship between Katie Morosky (Barbra Streisand) and Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford) will not last, and the movie is a consideration of the kinds of things that cause a couple to separate. 

In many ways, this movie — and the conversation between host Lily Percy and Sophie — is an extended conversation about time. What does it mean to live lovingly in the present when we don’t know the future? And does the not-knowing leave us without courage, or do we use the knowledge we have now to delve deep into the heart of what gives us life and enlivenment? 

This rich conversation considers love, in all its complexities, and ultimately lands on how, in a healthy relationship, the job is less to transform the other than to attend to yourself. We hear echoes of otherness here, too: how we are other to ourselves, and in our closest relationships; and that this can be an invitation into a life of courage and imagination. 

In all our othernesses, we are glad to be in conversation and learning with you. 

 

Beir bua, 

Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound


 
P.S. – In celebration of the release of Pádraig’s new book, Borders and Belonging: The Book of Ruth: A Story for Our Times (co-written with Glenn Jordan), our colleague Ben Katt and Pádraig lead an intimate gathering on Zoom to discuss how the ancient biblical story of Ruth speaks to our present moment. You can watch a recording of their conversation on our YouTube channel.

 


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Ariel Burger
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From being a spectator to bearing witness. Maladjustment with moral force. Lamentation. The creative space between words. 

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This Movie Changed Me

Sophie Krueger
The Way We Were

How romantic relationships can transform us and bring us closer to ourselves, even when they end. 

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